[By Sudarshana Banerjee]
We catch up with Eric Migicovsky, the founder and CEO of Pebble, at an IEEE event.
Here is a quick introduction, for those of us who may need it. Pebble is a customizable e-paper smartwatch. It connects to iOS/Android smartphones via Bluetooth, alerting users to incoming calls and messages. It features a 144×168 1-bit display, a 3-axis accelerometer with gesture detection, and a Cortex-M3 ARM microprocessor. Pebble has also released its SDK, letting users create their own apps, and is working towards building an ecosystem around the Pebble platform.
On May 18, 2012, Pebble raised over $10 million to become the most funded project in Kickstarter history. The company behind the smartwatch, Pebble Technology, started shipping the devices early this year. Pebble receieved $15 million in a Series A round in May, and in July, Pebble partnered with Best Buy to start selling its smartwatches as part of an exclusive retail deal.
Eric Migicovsky loved bikes; he did not like stopping to take calls while biking. But really, what was the alternative? Every time their cellphones ring, bikers around the world have to either stop and answer the call, even non-urgent calls, or not answer the phone, and miss out what may have been an important call. There is no way of knowing who the caller is, and if the call can wait.
There wasn’t, so he decided to build one.
“I studied Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo. I loved making robots,” says Mr. Migicovsky. He loved watches too, and the time was just right for wearable computing devices. And thus, the smartwatch was born. First, came the inPulse smartwatch (‘inPulse’, a portmanteau word joining ‘information’ and ‘pulse’). His mother came up with the name, and he took $15,000 from his parents and some funding from the Canadian government for research and development.
The inPulse team leaked the picture of inPulse to the blogs, and people assumed BlackBerry was making them. A week later they told them it was really not. They did not start taking pre-orders immediately, which was good, because inPulse took 12 months to make. The watch was a runaway success.
Mr. Migicovsky came to Silicon Valley as part of the Y Combinator program. He was making good money selling smartwatches, but he needed more to make more watches. He managed to secure some angel funding, but could not raise enough cash, and decided to give crowdfunding a try, looking for a modest couple of hundred thousand dollars. Pebble raised over $10 million from more than 85,000 people in a matter of days.
Our goal right now is to sell a larger number of products, instead of customizing hardware. We are focusing on software, and looking at three experiences – Health/Fitness, Remote Controls, Notifications/Alerts.
The way we think we will succeed in 2014 and beyond, is to make thousands of Pebble smartwatches and the platform available to users around the world, and create a developer ecosystem.
On Pebble Apps
We have no immediate plans of opening an app store.
It is a cool thing how people hack Pebble. A guy in Germany created a watchface generator for people who have not coded, and within days 15,000 people had made their own watch faces. Lots of Pebble app-makers accept Bitcoin as payment.
On What Pebble Is Not
It is not a replacement of a cell phone. We have no plans of adding additional sensors to the hardware right now. What Pebble is, is a device that can work very well with cell phones and sensors. For example, it can connect via bluetooth to a heart-rate monitor.
We had 11 people on our team starting out. There was no time for patent applications. We do have a couple of defensive patents; but we are not taking the offensive on filing patent applications.
I backed around 11-12 campaigns on Kickstarter before launching our own campaign. Kickstarter is doing things differently for hardware now, check out other crowdsourcing platforms also if you want to launch your own campaign.
On Y Combinator
One of the advantages of working with Y Combinator was we had access to a network of some 500-600 people, and we could email the group with any questions we had.
Pebble is still heavily owned by employees.
We were working with a local contract manufacturer based in San Jose. Things really changed in day two of the Kickstarter campaign. We were raising a lot of money, and we realized we needed a more formal manufacturing process, and looked at Asia. I wanted to go to China on day seven of our Kickstarter campaign! A few weeks later I was there.
We partnered with Dragon Innovation, and spoke with several contract manufacturers, before finding one. The cost of the Pebble box is 3 to 5 cents, and the factory there, seals it and ships it to the distribution center. A lot of manual QC goes on in China. I have travelled to China seven, eight times.
The original design was of a one-button watch. Later we decided on four buttons, for a more standard interface.
Getting something to work is not the hardest part, the hardest part is optimizing power. Battery optimization was a huge undertaking.
InPulse had only 24-hours battery life. The rechargeable battery in Pebble can go for seven days. I spent weeks in China working on the waterproofing. Adding audio meant having holes, so we did not add audio capabilities.
We decided to laminate the display, to eliminate any air gaps for better optics.
There are two things you can do as a startup. a] Make something people want, and b] Not let your startup die. Saving burn rate is not important if you can’t ship.
There were mistakes in our first product. The first time we made watches, we shipped the first 25, and realized the back came off due to rattling during shipping. The first version of firmware that we released, did not tell time, and that became the most requested feature from users.
When we got funding from our angel investors, we made 3,000 units. Six months later, we had sold only 1,000. Conversion rate was less than expected, and we had excess inventory.
With Pebble, making so many colors was a mistake, and we ran out of stock.
Have they come up with a smartwatch yet? I will comment on Apple as competition once they do.
[Images courtesy: Pebble, IEEE]